Letter to a Birmingham jail

As part of an exercise for my men’s group Bible study, we have been writing modern-day responses to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I’ve included mine here:

4 November, 2020

Dear Reverend Doctor King:

While here in Dallas some 57 years after the writing of your Letter From a Birmingham Jail, I had occasion to read that document as part of my band-of-brothers Bible study group. I wonder if you are more surprised that your Letter is so widely read today, or that I — a White, Southern moderate — am only reading it in my 48th year. At the time you wrote it, I imagine you suspected — although you could not know — that you would be martyred for the cause of justice. 

I am mixed with joy and grief to inform you of what has happened in these six decades since. To the good, integration is the law of the land. To the letter of our country’s laws, every man, woman and child who is a naturalized citizen enjoys the same freedoms as their brothers and sisters. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, color or creed is illegal in our country.

But as a people, we are like the legalistic adherent to Christianity who obeys the law but lives with an unchanged heart. It is as though the walls of Jericho have been brought low, but we have neglected to pass within to achieve His promise. We have reconstructed the organs without curing the cancer within — and that has led to an ongoing battle that rages as fiercely as that you and your followers marching throughout the South fought in the 1960’s, what we in this time nostalgically refer to as the “Civil Rights Movement.”

For just as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment did not place Black Americans on a level playing field, the civil rights movement achieved equality, but not equity.

The distinction I make is that equality has led to at least a theoretical equal treatment under the law, while equity is a proportional opportunity and representation. Even as your brothers and sisters were fighting for civil rights, deed covenants and redlining kept Black Americans from enjoying the opportunities of homeownership. As homes tend to appreciate and create wealth, this means that my generation of Black Americans started at a disadvantage. (And this is but one example of many of how Black Americans start the race behind their White counterparts.)

Another way of putting it, courtesy Cynt Marshall, the Black, female CEO of The Dallas Mavericks NBA team: “Equality is being allowed to come to the party; Equity is being invited to dance.” Invited and enabled, even if you didn’t arrive with the same advantages and adornments as those hosting the dance.

In your Letter, you said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This is true in all places and times, but with the equality battle seemingly won, we have been like the white moderates of your day, writing off systemic injustice as outliers to be ignored or conspicuously redeemed one at a time while neglecting our duty to right wrongs that predate us. 

Like Jesus, we may illustrate via a parable:

There was a rich man, who inherited wealth from his father and multiplied it by careful and faithful stewardship. The father before him inherited wealth from his father and multiplied it by careful and faithful stewardship. But the father’s father had gained his wealth by stealing from his neighbor.

One day, the rich man was set upon by a bandit. He called for help and as the authorities bound the robber, the rich man recognized him as the grandson of the neighbor from whom his father’s father had stolen. He ran to his assailant, embraced him and asked that he be freed. He then gave half of his wealth to the neighbor’s grandson and took him on as a partner in his business.

Too often, we have not acted as the man in the parable, but instead sniffed about law and order as the neighbor’s grandson was thrown into prison, multiplying the injury to a future, fatherless generation.

What is so insidious is that because of the delivery of equality, we have been too easily able to turn a blind eye to the lack of equity. We have forgotten the history of police departments built and grown to control slaves and later integrators. We have warred against drugs, and some drugs over others to create a nation that represents five percent of the world’s population but 20% of its prisoners. Nearly one out of every three Black men will call a prison home at some point in their lives, compared to only 5% of white men. But we have equality.

Our country is roiled with conflict today, as a new generation of protesters see Black men disproportionately killed by police. It took the egregious, grusome murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer kneeling on his neck, captured on video, to spark serious attention to the racial inequity still prevalent in our land. But the numbers are much lower than they were in your time. And we have equality.

I look at my own company and see a racial makeup that is not yet reflective of our community, which is nearly 50% Hispanic. While we have made improvements in this area over recent years, we have far to go.

So, your 340 year wait for “constitutional and God given rights” came to fruition. But injuries from certain “hate-filled police, … airtight cage(s) of poverty in the midst of affluent society,” and minority children with “ominous clouds of inferiority” still flourish.

You are often compared to Moses, leading a people to righteous freedom. But if you look at us as a people, like the Israelites, we have built idols in your absence. These idols are technology, media, money and instant gratification — all of which translate into comfort. Comfort is a sense of inertia, not action; of forces at rest, and therefore in support of the status quo. As you said, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

This is where the tepid white moderate Christian has most stymied your movement. Without the easy bright line of equality to drive action, the situation has been obscured. Complexity opens the door to easy obfuscation and the current generation of Black Americans is left with an untenable situation. (Take for instance the hidden racism in sentencing for drug crimes, without ever using race as the lever.)

The only logical thing standing between your children adopting Malcom’s vision of violence instead of yours of peace is God’s grace. They have waited; their dreams are deferred; they have equality but not equity and see themselves running out of options. Integration brought a breath of victory, but ongoing institutional racism has revealed another boil, one that is bubbling. It is racism not born of this generation; maybe not even enabled by it — but it is also not been fought against except those who are oppressed.

11 o’clock on Sunday remains the most segregated hour in American life. I attend a progressive Evangelical church that purports to engage in outreach in the community, and still we are 90% white. We have Black churches; mainline (White churches); and churches of other ethnicities, hardly God’s family gathered at a single table. Until we do so, embracing each other and “doing life together,” how can we truly lift each other up?

I write on the eve of a presidential election that embodies all of these tensions. You may be surprised and pleased to know that we had a Black man serve as president and that one of the current vice presidential candidates is a Black woman. But we have fallen partisan to a level of discord some are comparing to the Civil War era, with much of the conflict being over the degree and method to which we need to lift up brothers and sisters to achieve equity.

We argue over the preservation of Confederate monuments, many of which were erected after the fact,  in your day,  to dampen your efforts. We talk of the danger of low-income housing in the suburbs, using insidious coded language to redline when laws no longer allow for it. 

By aligning The Church with policies of one party or another, we have given ammunition to those who would divide the oppressed from His Church. The Church in many cases in trying to make America its own has let itself become America’s Church, and operates from jingoism rather than “creative extremism” in love. The space between the “‘do nothingism’ of the complacent and the hatred and despair of the black nationalist” has become too narrow, and we are reaping the fruits of years of inaction.

I fear that as you posited, “time itself is neutral; it can be used either constructively or destructively.” Yet, it is our very neutrality about the plight of our brothers and sisters that has led to a continued destructive cycle, one that many feel is untenable. The have-nots aren’t willing to wait any longer; and the haves fear they are losing their birthright. The center cannot hold.

No doubt, my brothers will find my reflections dour and perhaps too lacking in hope. Part of that is that, spurred by my Black friends and the events of the time I have been mainlining history and learning hard truths of what our country has done to our most egregiously treated “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” over our history. It has left me tired and yearning for justice in a way that still doesn’t begin to address the fatigue of those like my Black brother, Terrence, an esteemed executive and leader, who still avoids certain parts of town for fear of getting pulled over for “driving while Black.”

But I do find hope in The Gospel and in the words of Paul, who teaches us that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” My hope lies in the spread of this message to more hearts. How can anyone who ascribes to the parable of the Prodigal Son for a single moment begrudge the grandson of the man whom his grandfather robbed?

There is but one generation in my family between me and the shameful Ku Klux Klan. I confess in my sin that I have not done nearly enough to repay that sin. I have fallen prey to the illusions of equality that comforted me while equity remains elusive. I have, in my youth, used good deeds allegedly performed in service of civil rights as a tool to advance myself without care for those upon whom I forced my “help.”

But I believe that as Peter said, we “are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. His own special people, that … may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” We must, as Paul said, “put away falsehood … each speaking the truth with his neighbor.” Even, especially, if that truth is unpleasant.

I’m afraid this letter is much too long to take your precious time, and that even in its indictments, I don’t begin to amend for my own sins. I write from a comfortable desk, not alone in a narrow jail cell, but I believe that we will never advance equity until the privileged force themselves to write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers. I am a journalist, a profession that is charged with “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” I am a Babylonian, and faced with how to confront the Jews in my midst. I doubt and fear that I have the courage to serve our captives and make way for their equity. 

Never before in history as the comfortable class willingly given way to the afflicted. To shatter that precedent, with God’s help, would surely be a tremendous sign of the coming of His Kingdom to Earth. May we have the strength and will to serve as his instruments in performing this miracle.

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you and my brothers to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds us all strong in the faith. I hope that circumstances will make it possible for each of us to meet you, not as an integrationist or civil-rights leader, but as a fellow member of God’s Kingdom brought to Earth. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial inequity will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Michael Glen Orren.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.